Traffic on both sides of Highway 101 just south of Gaviota came to a halt Monday evening as a brush fire quickly squashed Labor Day travelers’ plans for getting home at a reasonable hour at the end of their holiday weekend. Firefighters got the call just after 8 p.m., arriving to find downed power lines in the area. One firefighter suggested the downed lines could’ve been the cause, but said so with no certainty.
The fire, powered by extremely strong, gusty winds, quickly lit up the hillside near an oil refinery and the abandoned Vista Del Mar School site. The fire made its way to Highway 101, where it easily jumped the four-lane highway with the help of the wind, which was described as “pushing against itself, blowing slightly to the west” by one firefighter. Firefighters weren’t concerned about the fire heading east, and no residences appeared to be in trouble. Candle-like flames dotted the hillside, continuing to flicker even as the fire roared toward the ocean. As of late Monday night, Highway 101 remained closed as did the railroad tracks as the fire spread to roughly 50 acres.
Southbound traffic quickly backed up to Mariposa Reina, as the flames neared the highway and eventually jumped it. Drivers stuck on the highway pulled over to the side to let emergency crews through, and many passengers equipped with cameras from the holiday weekend got out of their vehicles to snap a few photos while they waited. Some drivers took it upon themselves to cross over the median, with a few getting stuck in the uneven, rough terrain of the natural center divider. Eventually, with the guidance of CHP officers, the line of cars began crossing the highway, heading back north to Highways 246 or 154 for a slow, crowded trip back to the Santa Barbara area.
Southbound traffic was backed up for several miles roughly 30 minutes after the fire. Traffic conditions for northbound travelers is unknown. All northbound traffic is being diverted at Winchester Canyon Road, while southbound traffic is being led to Highway 1.